Activities of Dust: A New Mind

A new project spearheaded by drummer Doug Scharin (HiM, Mice Parade), Activities of Dust also draws on the improvising talents of guitarist Jeff Parker (Tortoise, Isotope217), Bill Laswell (Material, Painkiller, Last Exit), and Bernie Worrell (Parliament-Funkadelic, Talking Heads). A New Mind, an admirably succinct forty-three minute set that was assembled from hours of recorded material laid down during 2006 and 2007, opens strongly with “Return to the Original Matrix,” eleven minutes of heady jazz-funk in that familiar “Pharaoh's Dance” style, with Laswell's pulsating bass, Parker's shuddering accents, and Scharin's rim-shots and ride cymbals leading the charge while Worrell sprinkles electric piano overtop. The intensity cools for languorous episodes in “Shades of Appearance” and “Possibility Waves” before the seventeen-minute “Written in Nowhere” alternates episodes of splash and sprawl and loose-limbed proto-funk before bowing out with a peaceful guitar-and-bass spotlight.

In its experimental style, the material's free-form flow makes Activities of Dust sound a bit similar in spirit to Paul Schütze's Phantom City band (Laswell's participation in both naturally strengthens the association), with one critical difference: Schütze's outfit, so definitively captured on Site Anubis (1996) and Shiva Recoil, Live Unlive (1997), includes players such as trumpeter Toshinori Kondo and guitarist Raoul Björkenheim who are first-rate, front-line soloists; by comparison, Parker and Worrell appear more comfortable adopting the role of atmospheric colourists. Consequently, A New Mind lacks a bit of the fire that dynamic soloists with highly personalized voices would have brought to the sessions. Nevertheless, it's always a pleasure to hear Laswell's distinctive bass lines threading their way through anyone's mix, and Worrell's Fender Rhodes and clavinet are welcome too.

Sadly, the less said about the video accompanying the release, the better. The DVD contains a treatment for “Return to the Original Matrix” that's hopelessly dated and frankly crude, and the heavily saturated colour-manipulated treatments of bridge structures, natural landscapes, and geometric patterns used as accompaniment to the eleven-minute track would have been dismissed as cheesy as far back as 1982. One thought kept continually coming to mind while I watched it: why not simply show the four musicians playing the material live? Footage of Laswell, Worrell, Parker, and Scharin interacting would be a whole lot more engrossing than a non-narrative stream of images and patterns. Though it is a beautifully designed package, ignore the DVD—it's a bonus, anyway—and focus on the music which holds up well enough on its own, all things considered.

January 2009